COL Moral strength in children

Almost daily we read or hear about the rising tide of teen-age violence, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, weapons in schools and other anti-social behavior. Concerned civic and religious leaders worry about the decline of traditional moral values in our homes and communities.

As parents, we wonder what we need to do to teach our children values like honesty, kindness, responsibility and fairness -- values that will serve them well in a society that is losing touch with basic values.

Psychologist William Damon has written a book "The Moral Child," in which he summarizes the research on the role of parental influence in the moral development of their children.

Respect for authority. Parents shape their children's feelings of obligation to obey family rules through rewards and sanctions. Family rules are extensions of society's rules. In fact, Damon states, "The child's respect for authority is the single most important moral legacy that comes out of a child's relation with his parents."

The affectionate relationship parents have with their children is an inducement for cooperation. The most secure or attached children are the ones most likely to comply with family rules.


Teaching respect. Damon cites the research of Diana Baumrind in describing the most effective parenting style for teaching cooperation, respect for authority and social responsibility. Effective parents combine firm direction and control while maintaining a warm and supportive relationship with their children. Their communications are honest and direct. They expect a lot.

Children are confronted about actions that are harmful to others. This is done in a manner that is not overly harsh or intrusive. Parents openly express their own emotional response to the child's misdeeds and explain the reasons for their reactions. They consistently expect children to bear their share of personal and family responsibilities and prohibit other activities deemed harmful.

Parents demonstrate their commitment to social norms and family values by being consistent in their follow-through. They teach their children to obey legitimate authority and authority figures in their lives. Successful parents provide control of their children's behavior through minimal force while providing them with information through respectful persuasion, argument and reasoning.

The goal of discipline is to help the child act properly and come away from the event remembering why it was important to do so. As children grow older, they come to see authority as something mutually agreed on that serves everyone's interests.

Learning responsibility and service. Damon states, "There is no more effective facilitator of moral development than fostering children's willingness to take responsibility for good and bad deeds."

Children are given responsibility and trusted to rise to the occasion. They grow in moral sensitivity by being given opportunities to be of real service to others.

Affluence makes it too easy for children and teens to concentrate on their own entertainment, education and self-development without a balance of social responsibility and concern for others. Parents can consciously provide opportunities for their children to be given serious responsibility -- real help around the house or at work.

Parental openness. Damon also suggest that parents need to be open about their emotions and responses to moral dilemmas in adult lives. This means sharing emotions, describing them clearly and answering questions about them candidly.


Research by psychologist Nancy Eisenberg indicates that parents who show and identify their own emotions have children who are more emotional and responsive to others.

Children need to learn how respected adults manage their moral feelings and decisions. Exposure to their parent's guilt, anger, fear or uncertainty is exactly what children need to learn how to deal with their own moral emotions. Of all Damon's proposals, he feels this is the one least followed in American life.

Parental example. Eisenberg also found that parents who are empathic and are good at taking the perspective of others have same-sex children who show concern for others. Girls who show sympathy for others come from family environments where emotion, either positive or soft negative -- sadness -- not anger -- is expressed.

Boys who are taught to express their feelings and to take some kind of action steps when dealing with strong emotions are more helpful to others. Children raised in homes where anger is frequently expressed experience personal distress and anxiety at another's problem and are not as likely to be helpful.

The challenge is great, especially when popular culture and the media communicate a much lower standard of morality. The family is a key place where basic respect and concern for others is learned. There is no social substitute that can provide this formative lessons in morality that parents teach best.

For more information on parenting, you can visit Val Farmer's Web site at

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist with MeritCare in Fargo, North Dakota. He specializes in rural mental health and family business consultation.

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